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Lacey Act: the diverse coalition that supports it and why efforts to weaken it should be resisted

Jake Schmidt

Posted October 3, 2011 in Saving Wildlife and Wild Places, Solving Global Warming, U.S. Law and Policy

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Rosewood logging in Madagascar during the 2009 military coupName an environmental law strongly supported by both Republicans and Democrats, America’s timber industry, purchasers of wood products, labor unions, and environmental organizations.  Stumped?  Actually there is such a law.  It’s called the Lacey Act — which has an important provision to stop imports of illegal wood and wood products into the U.S.  This law is a critical tool in efforts halt deforestation, it protects American jobs, and helps establish rule of law in developing countries.

The Lacey Act, last amended in 2008, is drawing fresh debate because federal agents this past summer raided Gibson Guitar Corp., factories in Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee to investigate whether the firm used illegally imported wood from India, which would be a violation of the act.  Gibson also is under investigation for allegedly importing illegally logged wood from Madagascar in 2009.  Until these cases are resolved, it behooves everyone to reserve judgment.

Some are using this recent controversy to undermine this Act.  These attempts should be strongly resisted as illegal logging is a major contributor to global forest loss.  Ensuring that American imports aren’t helping to drive deforestation is a powerful tool in ongoing efforts to curb the many environmental, economic, and social damages caused by the loss of tropical forests. 

A common sense law.  The premise behind the amendment to the Lacey Act is pretty straightforward – it is illegal to import and trade in illegal timber.  Companies importing wood and wood products into the U.S. must verify that they are buying that material from legal sources.  Legality is determined on the basis of the law in the country of origin of the product.  So if a company imports wood from Brazil that wood would have to be cut, produced, manufactured, etc according to Brazilian law or it would be deemed illegal according to the Lacey Act. 

The Lacey Act doesn’t cover every law in the exporting country.  The Act’s specific language, and legal precedent (this Act has a 111 year old track record), focus on “conservation” laws (*see exact legal language from the Act below).  While many would like to define exactly what kinds of laws to comply with, the authors (and its supporters) agreed that the U.S. can’t define what exact conservation laws in another country should be complied with.  After all, we wouldn’t want another country saying: “this U.S. law should be complied with and that one you can completely ignore”.  That isn’t a precedent the U.S. should establish. 

The law is also based on the premise that importing companies need to ensure that their supply chain meets the requirements of the Act.  So companies choosing to import wood and wood products into the U.S. must take the necessary steps to ensure that their suppliers are complying with the law in the country where the wood is sourced.  We don’t have the resources for government officials to go to each country supplying wood and ensure that each supplier is meeting the laws in that country.  That isn’t a proper role for the U.S. government.  The onus must be on the companies in the U.S. to ensure that they are complying.

There is bipartisan support for the Lacey Act’s effort to address illegal logging.  This is an important law which passed with bipartisan support in the 2008 Farm bill.  The amendment was introduced by Rep. Blumenauer (D-OR), Sen. Wyden (D-OR), Sen. Alexander (R-TN), Rep. Weller (R-IL), and Rep. Wexler (D-FL).  The amendment unanimously passed the House Committee on Natural Resources in October 2007 and passed the Senate in December 2007.  It became law in May 2008 as a part of the 2008 Farm Bill.

When the amendment passed it received strong endorsements from leading Members of Congress:

“[Illegal logging] is an estimated $1 billion a year in depressed prices and reduced exports…It means the people who play by the rules in the United States are having money taken from them by criminals who don’t play by the rules in other countries…” – Sen. Alexander (R-TN)

“The important change we made to the Lacey Act is helping to end the trade of illegally harvested, and endangered wood and wood products.  By shining a light on global supply chains, we can prevent the destruction of some of the most valuable resources on our planet and protect the jobs of people who play by the rules.” – Rep. Blumenauer (D-OR)

The law has strong support from a variety of leading organizations including**: environmental, conservation, and development organizations (e.g., NRDC, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, Dogwood Alliance, Environmental Investigation Agency, and InterAction), timber industry (e.g., American Forest and Paper Association, International Wood Products Association, Hardwood Federation, and Society of American Foresters), forest product users (e.g., Sustainable Furnishings Council, Taylor Guitars, Martin Guitars, Williams & Sonoma ), and labor unions (e.g., United Steelworkers which represents the pulp and paper labor union, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters).  (For NRDC’s testimony in support of the law see here).

There are several reasons why this diverse coalition supports the Lacey Act’s effort to address illegal logging.

Protects jobs.  Illegally-sourced foreign wood and wood products coming into the U.S. undercut the domestic market.  This hurts American lumber companies that play by the rules, forcing them to compete with illegal overseas operations that log in national parks, evade taxes, and sometimes even use slave and child labor.  The Lacey Act creates an even playing field by preventing the market from being flooded by an illegal supply – a problem which industry research estimated costs the U.S. wood products sector $1 billion annually.  The U.S. timber industry saw that dynamic and was a key voice in support of this amendment.  Likewise key labor unions were strong champions of the amendment.

As Rep. Blumenauer and Jameson French, the CEO of Northland Forest Products recently wrote in an op-ed:

“Undermining the Lacey Act would be disastrous for American jobs and competitiveness. America’s family-owned timber businesses can compete with those who play by the rules, but are threatened by lawless logging operations in places like China, Indonesia and Vietnam.”

Protects the environment.  Deforestation in the tropics is a major contributor to global warming, loss of biodiversity, and other environmental damages.  Estimates show that about 40% of all logging in the tropics comes from illegal logging – with some countries as high as 60-70%.  As a result, efforts to address this environmental damage have focused on stopping illegal logging as one powerful tool to stop tropical deforestation. 

The Lacey Act encourages developing countries and companies to take strong steps to combat deforestation as they now know that they can’t export to the U.S. unless their products are sourced from legal wood or wood products.  This type of law has emerged as a powerful motivation for countries and companies in the developing world to get their acts together.

Helps countries establish rule of law and crackdown on corruption.  For many countries, the forests are the frontline in efforts to address corruption and criminal syndicates.  The profits from illegal logging are often used to undermine basic rule of law in the developing world.  Stories from Indonesia, Malaysia, and elsewhere highlight the connection between illegal logging and corruption.  After all, the best way for illegal loggers to ensure that they can continue to profit is if they ensure corruption in the ranks of the police, prosecutors, and judges.  By definition their illegal act needs a breakdown in the rule of law.

Illegal logging is often not driven by local “mom and pop” deforesters.  In many countries there is a strong connection between illegal logging and criminal syndicates—leading some UN officials to call it “conflict timber” in several countries.  So efforts to curb illegal logging also undermine these criminal syndicates and the destruction that they cause.

This is an important law, supported by diverse groups which must not be undermined.  Global deforestation is a major environmental, social, economic, and legal challenge in the developing world.  The amendment to the Lacey Act passed with bipartisan support in 2008, is strongly supported by a diverse group, and is a powerful tool in efforts to stop the destruction of the world’s forests.

We need to strengthen the Lacey Act and extend this type of program to other countries, not weaken it.    

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* Under Section 3372 (a)(2)(B) of the Lacey Act it states that the laws enforced are plant-related:

 “It is unlawful for any person— 

(1) to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire, or purchase any fish or wildlife or plant taken, possessed, transported, or sold in violation of any law, treaty, or regulation of the United States or in violation of any Indian tribal law; 

(2) to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire, or purchase in interstate or foreign commerce—

(A) any fish or wildlife taken, possessed, transported, or sold in violation of any law or regulation of any State or in violation of any foreign law;

(B) any plant—

(i) taken, possessed, transported, or sold in violation of any law or regulation of any State, or any foreign law, that protects plants or that regulates—

(I) the theft of plants;

(II) the taking of plants from a park, forest reserve, or other officially protected area;

(III) the taking of plants from an officially designated area; or

(IV) the taking of plants without, or contrary to, required authorization;

(ii) taken, possessed, transported, or sold without the payment of appropriate royalties, taxes, or stumpage fees required for the plant by any law or regulation of any State or any foreign law; or

(iii) taken, possessed, transported, or sold in violation of any limitation under any law or regulation of any State, or under any foreign law, governing the export or transshipment of plants; or…”

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** Supporters include (according to letters in support of the Act – here and here – or public statements – see links for organizations that weren’t explicitly in the letters of support): American Forest and Paper Association, Center for International Environmental Law, Conservation International, Defenders of Wildlife, Dogwood Alliance, Environmental Investigation Agency, Forest Ethics, Forest Stewardship Council, Friends of the Earth, Global Witness, Greenpeace, Hardwood Federation, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, InterAction (the largest alliance of U.S.-based international NGOs focused on the world’s poor and most vulnerable people), International Paper, Lowe’s Home Improvement, Martin Guitars, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Hardwood Lumber Association, Rainforest Action Network, Rainforest Alliance, Sierra Club, Society of American Foresters, Sustainable Furniture Council, Taylor Guitars, The Nature Conservancy, Tropical Forest Trust, United Steelworkers (which represents 100,000 pulp and paper workers), Wildlife Conservation Society, Williams and Sonoma, and World Wildlife Federation.

***Photo courtesy: Environmental Investigation Agency.

**** Updated (10/4/11): To include support from InterAction.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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